History is a catalog of conflict — the Punic Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Gator Wars.
Wait, the Gator Wars?
Yep, the Gator Wars. Happily, though, the Gator Wars aren’t that kind of war.
The FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) created the Gator Wars in North Carolina, where John Deere has two manufacturing facilities, two offices, and a training center — to appeal to students who are still interested in getting their hands dirty. In the early days of the Gator Wars, the annual contest pitted teams of mechanically minded high schoolers against each other to see which could correctly identify a pre‑arranged problem in a John Deere Gator utility vehicle and fix it — fast. Thus, the Gator Wars.
A couple years ago, the competition was looking for a sponsor, so the FFA reached out to Deere. The two have a relationship that goes back three-quarters of a century. The timing of the call was perfect.
“We decided to sponsor the Gator Wars because we knew there was tremendous potential for a win-win,” said John Arthur, a production system manager for Deere’s Turf & Utility business who is also the leader of John Deere’s Corporate FFA Alumni & Supporters Chapter in North Carolina. There’s an acute shortage of ag technicians — people who can keep agricultural equipment running at optimal efficiency.
Chris Johnson, vice president of James River Equipment, which has John Deere dealerships in North Carolina and Virginia, estimated the technician shortfall nationally could be “at least 2,000.” That is, John Deere Ag & Turf and Construction & Forestry dealerships will need 2,000 additional technicians by 2025.
The reasons for the shortage are simple. A generation of technicians is retiring, and younger generations have been persuaded that a college degree and a desk job are the true path to a satisfying career. Thus, there’s intense competition among employers for the shrinking number of students who might prefer something other than a four-year college program and a desk job. Landscapers and home-builders and similar businesses are all fighting over a limited number of available workers, poaching from each other and driving up wages.
Finding Needles in a Haystack
Arthur, who traces his own path back to a Deere coffee mug he received at a career fair at the National FFA Convention, spotted an opportunity to recruit. “If you can get people who are interested in equipment service and maintenance to attend an event like the Gator Wars at a John Deere facility,” he said, “then instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, you’ve brought the needle to you.”
Arthur found that the Gator Wars attracted about 35 teams. With four students per team, that meant close to 150 students with a keen interest in the kind of work a technician does were presenting themselves.
John Deere dealers took notice.
“They were very excited,” Arthur said, “because they could clearly see the link between helping kids find careers they would enjoy and helping themselves find outstanding prospects for their own service operations.”
John Deere dealers offered to host students during the preliminary rounds of the competition. In the eastern part of the state, the competition was held at a dealer location in Fuquay-Varina, just a few miles down the road from Deere’s Turf Care facility, where the company manufactures a variety of lawn and turf equipment. In the west, the event was hosted by the Wilkesboro dealer location.
Students who were competing got the chance not only to tour John Deere dealerships and their service facilities, but also to talk with the staffs about what it’s like to be an ag technician, how precision agriculture is changing the industry, and how the ag technicians of the future won’t just be lying on a dirt floor under a tractor, turning wrenches.
“Students get to talk about careers that are available to them based on their education and training,” Arthur said. “And they see that they’re not just part of a competition, they’re also getting to understand what it’d be like to work for a dealership, what educational path they have to take to get there, and some of the benefits and compensation that go along with those ag technician jobs. All the feedback we get from students and their advisors is extremely positive.”
There are also scholarships available, Arthur said. “Through our John Deere FFA scholarship program, we give $1,000 matching grants to dealers who want to sponsor students in FFA as they go onto education past high school.”
Johnson, who is a former FFA state officer, said “what I learned in FFA really helped me out for what I do today, so part of my interest in the Gator Wars is in helping these kids get the same benefits.
“It’s interesting watching the students try to figure out problems,” Johnson said. “These competitions may seem like a small step, but we try to tell all the students that there’s a really great career opportunity in being a technician. I’d like to see a few of these young people give our company a real look. It won’t be big numbers, but we’re recruiting in an area in which even one or two will help.”
The Art of War
And the Gator Wars are fun, too. Don’t forget that.
For the local competitions, the teams might be faced with challenges at the component level. This mirrors their education, which focuses on component-level principles before moving up to equipment systems.
“Even relatively simple machines still have pretty complicated systems for most folks in high school to try to understand,” said Arthur. “For example, what prevents a machine from starting could be a seat switch or a bad wire or a bad fuse, so we don’t want the students ripping these machines apart and struggling for hours just to find a problem.”
For that reason, the competitions have gone down to the component level.
“We can scale the problems up or down,” said Arthur. “We might hand them a spark plug and have them figure out why it isn’t working and then have them mix coolant to a precise ratio using water, coolant, and a refractometer.”
This year’s finals will be held during the annual North Carolina FFA convention in June at the Raleigh Convention Center.
Typically, hundreds of fans, including parents and advisors, will watch the students compete, and then more than 3,000 attendees will be on hand for the award presentation to the winners.
And because the Gator Wars aren’t that kind of war, all participants are winners. They return from the field of battle with the thrill of having survived a tough fight, as well as the experience of having toured a dealership and spoken with the people who can help them make a career out of their love for finding and fixing problems.